The Sublime Appeal Of The Vampire Femme Fatale
– My Literary Recommendations
By OBS Staff Member MajaM
Gothic literature is now more popular than ever, facing constant re-inventions through literature, film, music and art. All these cultural productions trace their origins in the 18th century Europe, or to be more precise, England. Gothic literature uses a number of conventions like abandoned castles, bad weather, various monsters, a hero and a villain, explorations of life, death, religion, the occult, morality and so on. When speaking of monsters, vampires are one of the richest sources of literary inspiration since the very emergence of the Gothic as a genre. First of all, let us look at the history of vampires and their origins. The vampire myth is deeply rooted in East European folklore, and they are usually imagined as blood craving lunatic peasants and disfigured people. Vampirism is implicitly condemned in the Bible, in Deuteronomy: ‘Only be sure that thou not eat the blood, for the blood is the life and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh.’ Back then, people had no knowledge of medicine, which gave rise to various superstitious practices: the tomb of the suspected vampire was opened and if they found the corpse to be of a ‘healthy’ appearance, they would usually ‘kill’ it by driving a wooden stake through the heart, decapitate it and incinerate the body. Medicine today tells us that the corpse may have appeared ‘fresh’ for numerous reasons like accumulating gas or emanating blood through the mouth and the nose while decomposing. Other ways in which the superstitious peasants kept a vampire from rising from its grave was through burning it upside down, or planting seeds on the grave so the vampire would spend the night counting them and forget about its blood-lust. Various other objects were used for warding off the evil blood-suckers, like garlic, sunlight or holy water. Just to make things more complicated, vampires are also depicted as shape-shifters, turning into rats, bats, cats (I assure you that this rhyme is unintentional), spiders and other slimy things which make our skin crawl. According to folklore, they also have no reflection (because they have no souls) and cannot enter a house unless they are not invited.
This folklore served as a great inspiration for numerous Gothic writers, whose vampires kept their folklore traits. However, some writers made significant innovations in the genre – writing about female vampires. What happens when a monster is a female? This proved to be not only a challenge but also a way of transgressing social boundaries, making social comments and creating deadly, beautiful and appealing heroines. The most innovative four heroines are listed below, according to my personal preferences as well as their overall influence on the Gothic genre:
- Carmilla – Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella ‘Carmilla’, part of ‘In a glass Darkly’, an 1872 short stories collection, features a vampire countess, a beautiful eccentric who could turn into a cat and chose specifically female victims. The innovation is there: she is an aristocrat, not a crazed peasant or a random lunatic which were present in folklore. She chooses only female victims, whom she deems most attractive. This is innovative for its challenge of gender roles and stereotypes, for Le Fanu makes Carmilla transgress the usual heterosexual norm by making Carmilla prefer women rather than men. Narrated by a girl who becomes Carmilla’s friend and potential victim, this story exposes the double role of the female monster: a predator, but also an appealing and affectionate friend and companion.
- Lucy – Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most influential vampire books of all times. Its two main female characters, Lucy and Mina, are the exact opposites. However, they are both restrained by oppressive social conventions at the end of the 19th century, when patriarchy dictated submission and a fate sealed in marriage. However, an interesting thing occurs when Lucy is transformed into a vampire and through this very role, she becomes liberated and breaks every convention by her aggressive and seductive behavior, acting in ways which scandalize and resist social norms. The vampire here is a high society girl with an extroverted personality and many suitors who transforms into a blood-sucking monster but nonetheless fascinates by her transgressive behavior.
- Akasha – Anne Rice introduces this character in ‘Vampire Lestat’, to deal with her more thoroughly in the ‘Queen of the damned’. Akasha and her partner Enkil are the King and Queen, the first vampires whose power is unfathomable. Anne Rice describes Lestat’s fascination with Akasha, her beauty and her wisdom, as well as her deadliness, for she stops at nothing to achieve her goals and will kill with ease and resolution. Anne Rice achieved fame by her depictions of the vampire as an aristocrat, a ruler and an intellectual, and her female vampires remain powerful, intelligent femme fatales.
- The Lady of the House of Love – Angela Carter’s short story, a part of her ‘The Bloody Chamber’ collection, features a lonely vampire heroine who lives alone in a mansion and lures men into her house to feed on them. This story portrays the isolation and loneliness of the female heroine, who longs for love, affection and comfort of everyday life. Unlike her transgressive sisters, this heroine wishes to be ‘normal’. She falls in love with a soldier and refuses to kill him, but rather tragically dies herself. This story reflects on the monstrous feminine in a sad and melancholic way, but also questioning conventions and subverting norms, which are persistent traits of Carter’s fiction.
All in all, through these examples – which I warmly recommend – we can clearly see how Gothic fiction has always been a suitable space for numerous transgressions. What society deemed scandalous and forbidden, Gothic fiction allowed and turned monstrous, but also empowered and fascinated. All of these heroines die tragically: Carmilla’s body is exhumed and destroyed, Lucy is killed with decapitation and a wooden stake, Akasha also gets decapitated and Lady Love simply decides to die of sorrow and despair. Nevertheless, the sublime beauty of monstrous female heroines persists to this day and they never fail to captivate us as readers with their deadly allure.